Discussion: Rape and consent in Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens

special topics
               faking normal

I had this section as a special topic at the end of my review, but it took on such a life of its own that I feel it deserves its own post--both to spare review readers from potential spoilerage and to give this important topic the attention it deserves.  This discussion is about rape and sexual assault in Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens.  

Warning: Spoilers ahead. 

So, against my better judgment, I read a few reviews after I finished the book.  I won't call anyone out here, 1 because it's tacky and 2 because I truly believe that the people writing the statements I object to are misinformed, not malicious.  But I'll paraphrase some of the quotes I encountered:  

"She probably could have gotten help if she'd just cried out.  If that were me, I would have fought back or yelled or something, not just stood there."  
"I'm not sure it was really rape.  She didn't actually say no."  
"She was crying while he was doing it, but his eyes were closed and he was crying too." 
"Can we even call him a rapist?  She even said she couldn't say no.  If he hadn't been stopped she probably would have called it that." 
"So it was statuatory rape which is a crime but it's not the same as date rape, which is what it sounds like in the rest of the story." 
"If she had just said no, he would have stopped and it wouldn't have happened." 
"The rapist took so much time and care before he did it, even using a condom.  She had plenty of time to feel unsafe and get away."  
"She's just making excuses because she didn't say no."  
"How could she not have told someone what happened?  Just because she doesn't want to ruin his life?  I would have told."  
"I can't believe she was cutting herself.  That's so stupid and doesn't make things better."  

First, I'd like to direct you to my post on victim blaming.  I think it's especially relevant here.  In short, there's a lot of venom being spit at Alexi for not doing something or saying something.  And it comes from a lot of misunderstandings.  For one, people think traumatic situations are all about fight or flight.  In fact, one super common response in the face of danger is for people to freeze.  Ever heard of "deer in the headlights?"  It's an evolutionary response to danger and it means that some women who are attacked feel frozen, powerless, unable to speak or move or run or fight.  And then they get blamed for it later.  So would you actually fight back?  You have no idea until you're in that situation.  Second, many women don't tell when they're abused.  Think about it.  It was her sister's boyfriend.  A beloved school coach.  Alexi was afraid of hurting her sister.  She was also afraid of what would be said about her.  In case you haven't read the news lately, rape victims who speak out are often treated with threats, ridicule, and accusations--not sympathy.  

Next, I think a lot of nuance in this book was lost for some people.  Perhaps it was error on the author's part; perhaps some profound cultural context.  Either way, there's been a lot of discussion over whether Alexi was raped or not.  When you find out the name of her attacker, it's abundantly clear that a massive abuse of power occurred, whatever Alexi said or did.  It was her sister's boyfriend.  An adult.  A coach at her school.  A man with power over her, a fifteen-year-old girl.  Rape.  I just think all the people squabbling over the nature of Alexi's abuse (was it rape? was it not?) are missing the point.  Power differential is crucial.  No one would balk at calling it rape if it Alexi had been 12, but for some reason, we think 15 is so much older.  Teenagers may have better understanding of the world, but they're still kids.  They're still lower power than adults.  They're still trained to follow rules and do what they're told.  And no one is too old to be taken advantage of.  

The waters become especially muddy with Alexi's relationship with Hayden, football player and dance date.  Those who are willing to accept that, "Okay, what Craig did to her was rape" were firmly disgusted with Alexi over this incident.  Basically, Alexi and Hayden leave the dance.  Hayden begins to kiss and touch Alexi.  Just like when she was raped, she finds herself voiceless, powerless to say no, dissociated.  And that scene has lead to a lot of people blasting her for not saying no, not fighting back--even one review going so far as to imply that Alexi would have "cried rape" had she allowed Hayden to go farther.  The "girl who cried wolf" scenario you hear in every media angle.    

Let's be straight.  Perhaps it would not have fit the legal definition of rape if Hayden had been uninterrupted and Alexi had allowed him to "go all the way," not saying no or indicating her displeasure.  But there is more power in the gray here.  1, drunken Hayden pushing Alexi under a car is a far cry from clear and enthusiastic consent.  If you're unfamiliar with the term, it's a hugely empowering movement for men and women; yes means yes!  For Alexi, here, it's consent by the absence of dissent.  Her no is muffled under a kiss.  She's too frozen to say more.  Forget the legal definitions for a moment and consider that this boy finds it culturally normative to kiss and grope a girl without assuring himself that she's into it too.  And that's considered okay.  And some readers consider it Alexi's fault for not standing up for herself.  Whatever the legal definition, this scene is hugely important and speaks to a broader societal problem in which humans do not give other humans the dignity of a choice.  And unless they're stopped, they'll take what they can get.  

Number 2, even more important is the profound lack of ownership Alexi feels over her own body.  She admits that she would have let Hayden go all the way.  Because she can't find the power in herself to say no.  Because her previous abuse made her feel violated.  It's actually a common, unfortunate coping mechanism for victims of rape and abuse to "allow" others to use them physically, rather than fighting back.  The rape destroys their feeling of control.  It teaches them that others can use their body; it's not theirs.  And many rape survivors carry that burden with them.  I think this issue is one of the most compelling and important points, for me, in Faking Normal.  Perhaps Stevens could have emphasized it more, but I think many readers could do more to understand Alexi's perspective, rather than lambasting her with the same tired "should haves" in every news story.  

I hope in this long, rambling post I've made the point I wanted to.  That is:  people are critical of Alexi's story, but for all the wrong reasons.  They blame her for not saying no when they could be admonishing her attacker.  They accuse her with "Whys" ("Why didn't she stop Hayden?") instead of really wondering and trying to understand why.  Why does she feel powerless?  Why does she feel broken?  So if you have read this book, or if you plan to, I have a challenge for you.  Really think about Alexi's story.  Because her emotional struggles and her trauma are much more insidious and important than the fuzzy legal definition of "rape."  


Why might Alexi have decided not to disclose her abuse? 
Why do you think Alexi felt like she would inevitably "allow" the abuse to happen again?  
Can a situation be considered abusive even if there's not a clear "no" stated? 
How does Alexi's story parallel with other real or fictional accounts of rape survivors?  
How is not saying "no" different from saying "yes"?  
Other thoughts?  

No comments:

Post a Comment